US Warns Top Gun Pilots to Be Wary of Job Offers From China

This photo taken on April 9, 2023 shows a J-15 fighter ready to take off from the aircraft carrier Shandong during exercises around the Taiwan Island carried out by the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Credit - An Ni—Xinhua via Getty Images

U.S. intelligence officials are issuing a stark warning to America’s former “Top Gun” pilots: Don’t help China.

A new threat bulletin issued Wednesday warns that China’s People’s Liberation Army “continues to target” current and former Western fighter pilots to help teach Chinese pilots how to master one of the hardest maneuvers in aviation: taking off and landing on aircraft carriers. In some cases, the naval aviators may be unaware they are helping train pilots for China’s military.

The notice was put out by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its closest intelligence partners: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. The group of English-speaking allies are collectively known as the “Five Eyes.”

The Chinese military had struggled for decades to deploy a fleet of aircraft carriers that can compete with the U.S. and project power across the world’s oceans. A major challenge has been training China’s jet pilots to take off and land on the short, floating runways. But in recent years, Chinese military leaders have set up a series of shell companies, some operating in South Africa, to recruit and pay American former F-18 jet pilots to teach more sophisticated maneuvers to Chinese pilots. Such instruction violates U.S. export laws, officials say.

By agreeing to train Chinese pilots, Western recruits “put their military colleagues at risk” and “may face legal peril,” the bulletin warns. China’s military has already improved the skills of its own fighter pilots and also learned about Western air tactics, techniques and procedures.

The bulletin says that the Chinese military has previously used personal acquaintances from the military to reach out to potential recruits and has tried to lure pilots with “lucrative contracts and the opportunity to fly exotic aircraft.” The offers sometimes obscure the fact that the Chinese military is the ultimate customer for their expertise, the bulletin says. Former fighter pilots from the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, the U.K. and Australia have all been hired to train Chinese pilots.

By sounding the alarm, the intelligence agencies are hoping to deter other Western fighter pilots from being seduced by the money and the chance to fly fighter jets again.

“To overcome their shortcomings, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been aggressively recruiting Western military talent to train their aviators, using private firms around the globe that conceal their PLA ties and offer recruits exorbitant salaries,” says Michael C Casey, the director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and works to prevent adversaries infiltrating American’s spy agencies.

One former U.S. Marine fighter pilot named Daniel Duggan was arrested in Australia in 2022 for allegedly violating export laws by training Chinese military pilots in South Africa on how to land on aircraft carriers. Duggan has denied the allegations. On May 24, an Australian magistrate ruled that Duggan can be extradited to the U.S. to face the charges.

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